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Thompson v. Ortensie

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

October 23, 2017

ANTHONY THOMPSON, Plaintiff,
v.
ROBERT A. ORTENSIE, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          WILLIAM H. STEELE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court sua sponte. On September 14, 2017, the undersigned entered an Order (doc. 12) raising questions as to the existence vel non of federal subject matter jurisdiction as described in defendants' Notice of Removal (doc. 1). The parties have now briefed the particular jurisdictional issue raised in the September 14 Order.

         I. Background.

         Plaintiff, Anthony Thompson, brought this action in Escambia County Circuit Court against named defendants, Robert A. Ortensie and Prewitt and Son Trucking Company. The well-pleaded factual allegations of the Complaint reflect that Thompson's claims arise from an automobile accident that occurred on September 22, 2016. In particular, the Complaint alleges that both Thompson and defendant Ortensie (as an employee of defendant Prewitt) were operating commercial trucks on Interstate 65 when Ortensie's vehicle collided with Thompson's trailer. The Complaint further alleges that the accident was the product of negligent and/or wanton conduct by defendant Ortensie in operating his commercial truck, in the form of failing to maintain a proper lookout, failing to yield the right of way, failing to maintain a reasonable distance between vehicles, failing to maintain a reasonable speed, and violating the Alabama Rules of the Road Act in unspecified ways. No further detail about Ortensie's acts or omissions, or the circumstances, nature or severity of the accident is set forth in Thompson's pleading. Thompson contends that defendant Prewitt may be held liable for Ortensie's conduct under a theory of respondeat superior.

         The Complaint includes only non-specific, indeterminate allegations about Thompson's injuries and damages. No particular amount of damages is demanded, with Thompson instead pleading only that he seeks “an amount of compensatory damages as a jury may award, ” plus “a separate amount of punitive damages” for the wantonness cause of action. As to injuries, the entirety of the pleading's description of Thompson's alleged compensable losses is as follows:

“Mr. Thompson suffered bodily injuries; he suffered physical pain and suffering and will continue to suffer physical pain in the future; he was required to seek medical treatment; he has incurred medical expenses and will continue to incur medical expenses in the future; and he has otherwise been injured or damaged.”

(Doc. 1-1, ¶¶ 15, 21.) The Complaint does not characterize the nature, degree or severity of Thompson's past, present or future physical injuries, medical treatment or expenses.

         Based on these allegations in the Complaint, defendants filed a Notice of Removal (doc. 1) in this District Court, removing this action to federal court. In so doing, defendants predicated subject matter jurisdiction exclusively on the diversity provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Some time after removal, the case was transferred to the undersigned's docket on September 6, 2017. (See doc. 11.) Upon preliminary review of the file, the undersigned entered an Order (doc. 12) on September 14, 2017 directing the parties to brief the question of amount in controversy for purposes of enabling the Court to explore whether diversity jurisdiction properly lies here. The parties have now submitted the requisite memoranda. (See docs. 13, 17.)

         II. Analysis.

         Pursuant to § 1332, federal courts have original jurisdiction over all civil actions between citizens of different states where the amount in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75, 000, exclusive of interest and costs. See Underwriters at Lloyd's, London v. Osting-Schwinn, 613 F.3d 1079, 1085 (11th Cir. 2010) (“For federal diversity jurisdiction to attach, all parties must be completely diverse … and the amount in controversy must exceed $75, 000.”) (citations omitted). “In light of the federalism and separation of powers concerns implicated by diversity jurisdiction, federal courts are obligated to strictly construe the statutory grant of diversity jurisdiction … [and] to scrupulously confine their own jurisdiction to the precise limits which the statute has defined.” Morrison v. Allstate Indem. Co., 228 F.3d 1255, 1268 (11th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted).

         As the removing parties, Ortensie and Prewitt bear the burden of showing by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount-in-controversy threshold is satisfied. See Dudley v. Eli Lilly and Co., 778 F.3d 909, 913 (11th Cir. 2014) (“We have repeatedly held that the removing party bears the burden of proof to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional minimum.”). That said, defendants are “not required to prove the amount in controversy beyond all doubt or to banish all uncertainty about it.” Pretka v. Kolter City Plaza II, Inc., 608 F.3d 744, 754 (11th Cir. 2010). Rather, Ortensie and Prewitt may meet their burden by showing either that it is “facially apparent from the pleading itself that the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional minimum, ” or that there is “additional evidence demonstrating that removal is proper.” Roe v. Michelin North America, Inc., 613 F.3d 1058, 1061 (11th Cir. 2010) (citations omitted). What defendants may not do, however, is resort to “conjecture, speculation, or star gazing” to show that the jurisdictional threshold is satisfied. Pretka, 608 F.3d at 754. In evaluating the sufficiency of a removing defendant's jurisdictional showing, courts need not “suspend reality or shelve common sense, ” but instead “may use their judicial experience and common sense in determining whether the case stated in a complaint meets federal jurisdictional requirements.” Roe, 613 F.3d at 1062.

         Addressing the jurisdictional concerns expressed in the September 14 Order, defendants eschew the “additional evidence” prong of Roe, and instead stake themselves to the position that an amount in controversy exceeding $75, 000 is “apparent from a review of the Complaint itself.” (Doc. 17, at 3.) In support of this stance, Ortensie and Prewitt posit that Thompson “seeks a broad array of both compensatory and punitive damages, ” and that the Complaint demonstrates “that his injuries were not trivial” because claims for bodily injury, pain and suffering and past and future medical treatment “are non-trivial claims.” (Id. at 3-4.) Defendants also point to the punitive damages component of the wantonness claim, and the inclusion of claims against both Ortensie (the driver) and Prewitt (Ortensie's employer). (Id. at 4.) Finally, defendants contend that the amount in controversy is satisfied “because the Plaintiff has not stipulated that he will not seek nor will he accept more than $75, 000 upon the trial of this case.” (Id.)

         Upon careful consideration of defendants' arguments and the allegations on the face of the Complaint, the Court concludes that Ortensie and Prewitt have not shown by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional minimum of $75, 000. Although defendants insist that Thompson's “injuries were not trivial, ” the Court has no information before it to make such an assessment. The Complaint says nothing about the type or severity of injuries Thompson received. The allegation in the Complaint is not that Ortensie's truck struck Thompson's truck, but rather that it collided with Thompson's trailer. From plain-vanilla statements that Thompson “suffered bodily injuries” causing him to suffer pain in the past and future, and that Thompson received medical treatment and will incur medical treatment in the future, the Court is able to draw no meaningful conclusions about whether Thompson's injuries were “trivial” or not, much less whether they are sufficiently severe to implicate an amount in controversy in excess of $75, 000. To be sure, courts may use judicial experience and common sense in determining whether the minimum amount in controversy is satisfied. But defendants have come forward with virtually no facts to which that judicial experience and common sense may be applied in this case. As a result, any determination by this Court that Thompson's injuries are sufficiently serious to trigger § 1332's amount-in-controversy threshold would be speculative and improper.[1]

         Nor does Thompson's wantonness claim, in and of itself, render the amount in controversy in excess of $75, 000. Without question, a “plaintiff's claim for punitive damages is properly considered in the evaluation of whether defendants have shown that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000. But there is nothing talismanic about such a demand that would per se satisfy the amount-in-controversy requirement and trigger federal subject-matter jurisdiction.” Crocker v. Lifesouth Community Blood Centers, Inc., 2016 WL 740296, *3 (S.D. Ala. Feb. 23, 2016) (citations omitted).[2] What is it about Thompson's particular demand for punitive damages that renders its value so substantial as to surpass the amount-in-controversy threshold? Defendants do not say. Indeed, defendant Ortensie's conduct alleged in the Complaint to have been wanton (i.e., failing to maintain a proper lookout, failing to maintain a reasonable distance, etc.) is presented in only the broadest of strokes. No specific facts are provided to suggest that Ortensie's alleged actions were or might have been so ...


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